Testimony begins in trial of man accused of plowing into Charlottesville crowd
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA (WWBT) - After three days of jury selection, opening statements took place Thursday in the James Fields Jr. state murder trial.
Fields of Maumee, Ohio, is charged with first-degree murder, as well malicious wounding, malicious assault and failure to stop - leaving the scene of an accident in the deadly Unite the Right Rally in August 2017. He was in the courtroom, and remained emotionless, even during testimonies and when videos and photos were shown.
Police say Fields drove into a crowd during the protests, killing Heather Heyer and injuring more than 20 others.
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, was in attendance alongside family and friends in the courtroom.
In its opening statement on Thursday, the prosecution described Heyer as loving and caring. They said she was with friends on Aug. 12, 2017, to join counter protesters to the white nationalist rally.
The commonwealth is arguing that the case isn’t about what Fields did, but it’s about the intent. The prosecution says months before the rally, Fields posted a photo of a car plowing into a crowd of protesters on his Instagram page. They believe with malicious intent, anger and violence.
The defense, which will argue that Fields believed he was acting in self-defense. In opening statements, it was mentioned Fields feared for his life at the time of the crash, and said Thursday that he drove 500 miles from Ohio to Charlottesville to participate in the rally. Defense attorney Brian Hill says three people described Fields as calm and composed earlier in the day.
The Commonwealth called 7 witnesses to the stand.
One man, Michael Webster was in the area of Water and 4th streets with his girlfriend when the crash happened. He says they were not participating in the rally, but observed the crowds of counter protesters who seemed to be celebrating. Webster says he noticed Fields’ Dodge Challenger driving slowly near the crowd at some point, his girlfriend eventually gasped, they heard the sounds of the car engine revving and Webster immediately thought “oh my God, he is driving into the crowd.” Webster says he ran towards the crowd after the crash, described the scene and aftermath as chaotic.
Marcus Martin knew Heather Heyer, through his then fiance and now wife. Martin attended the rally as a counter protester with his wife, Heyer and another friend. Martin described counter protesters and the atmosphere on Water Street at happy, he says people were smiley. Martin remembers looking down at his phone and when the car was coming he instant thought was that he wanted to get his wife out of the way. Martin was hit by the car. He suffered a broke tibia and ankle. He needed surgery, ended up getting screws in his leg and had to wear a boot for months. Martin described Heather Heyer as a great person, he got emotional needing to take a moment, while describing Heather and recalling the day she died.
Brennan Gilmore attended the rally as a counter protester and was recording when the crash happened. He didn’t realize until after that he had captured most of the chaos. Gilmore remembers seeing the car flying down the street and said there were “bodies flying everywhere.” Gilmore says his friend ran after the car after the crash. The video he recorded was played in court for jurors.
Brian Henderson, a lifelong Charlottesville resident said he was “roaming” in different areas of the City of Charlottesville as the protests were happening. He remembers being manly by himself, but seeing some familiar faces. He told the court there was a better feeling in the atmosphere in the afternoon as counter protesters were on Water Street, than there was during the morning hours of clashes between protesters and counter protesters. Henderson remembers hearing someone singing “lean on me,” and he began to film it. Henderson says the mood was celebratory and “felt right," but that eventually changed. Henderson remembers seeing the car about 15-20 feet ahead of him, he took a “leap of faith,” trying to get out of the way, but told the court, "I get a little emotional when I see [the picture], because I just wasn’t fast enough. He suffered a broken arm, lost skin, four broken ribs, and eventually learned he has nerve damage. He says he still cannot do a standard push up and continues to suffer from numbness in the broken arm.
Lisa Q, whose last name was not given in court, remembers celebrating with friends, who she came to Charlottesville to counter protest alongside. She says the whole day was noisy, but there was a different type of noise on Water Street when the crash happened. Lisa heard a scream of terror, and says she did not feel the impact of the car in the midst of the confusion. She eventually realized she had been hit, suffering a laceration over her eye, a broken left arm, two broken legs, broken bones in her hand and needing surgery. Lisa has continued to go through physical therapy and still has not regained full strength. She now walks with a cane.
A student at the time, Austin Hiudari, a college student at the time who is also from Charlottesville, was in town and decided to participate as a counter protester. He says there was a sense of optimism among the crowd. Hiudari lost many memories from the day after suffering a concussion. He does remember trying to walk but couldn’t after being hit by the car, he remembers screaming and seeing blood, but soon after, his next memory was waking up in the hospital.
Stephen Simalchik, a UVA hospital employee was curious about the events of the day, and wanted to observe what would happen. He brought his DSLR camera to capture the different groups protesting and counter protesting. Simalchik took a video of a group of men dressed in white shirts and khakis making hand gestures and chanting, video of it was played in court. At the year anniversary of the deadly day, he reviewed the video again, realizing he had captured James Fields in the group of men who were carrying shields as well. He say he contacted the Commonwealth’s Attorneys office, giving the video to them.
Most of the witnesses were cross examined by the defense who asked them to describe what was happening before they got to Water Steet, and before the crashed happened. Most described the clashes, things being thrown in the air, and people dressed with helmets and shields
The 12-person jury and four alternates consist of seven men and nine women.
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